How Young Is Too Young To Teach Kids About AIDS?

To celebrate Sesame Street's 40th anniversary, Global Voices Online looks at one of the most controversial characters: Kami, a HIV-positive Muppet from South Africa.

Kami is the world's first HIV-positive Muppet. She was introduced back in 2002 to help educate kids about living with HIV/AIDS and promote acceptance of HIV-positive individuals (her name is derived from the Setswana word "Kamogelo," meaning "acceptance.") Kami, who lost her mother to AIDS, is quite knowledgable about the disease, and frequently speaks with the other Muppets about the things you can and cannot do with an HIV-positive person (sex is never mentioned - the focus is more on hugging and dealing with sadness than body-to-body transmission of the disease). The blog U Don't Like My Opinion describes her as a "healthy HIV Positive, affectionate 5 year old orphan who is a little shy but quickly joins when approached in a friendly way."

Despite Kami's positive message, some disapprove of including an HIV-positive character on a children's show. Yesterday, The Week ran a roundup of the ten most controversial moments in Sesame Street history, where Kami is listed alongside other such "scandals" as the furor over Cookie Monster's unhealthy diet and Oscar the Grouch's mood swings. According to The Week, "some parents protest that their children are too young to face the harsh realities of the virus." Juhie Bhatia for Global Voices notes that much of the controversy was located in the U.S. Although Kami has never appeared on American Sesame Street, conservatives were all up in arms before her launch in 2002, apparently riled up by the fear that she would start indoctrinate kids into the homosexual lifestyle. Kami's Wikipedia page quotes a letter from the Traditional Values Coalition:

The introduction of an HIV-infected Muppet on Sesame Street is problematic because HIV is spread primarily by homosexuals and bisexuals in the U.S. It is likely that an HIV-infected Muppet would be used to teach tolerance and acceptance of homosexuals to the preschool Sesame Street audience. In effect, this would be another propaganda tool to normalize homosexuality in our culture.

Some bloggers agree. Bhatia quotes a blogger who argues that a character like Kami is unnecessary in America, because children here "are not forced to deal with the issue of HIV/AIDS at that young of an age." Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research for Sesame Workshop, responds to this type of criticism in an interview with USA Today,

"We get letters all the time," Truglio says. "My response is always this: Sesame Street is this wonderful, multicultural place where we celebrate differences as well as similarities. I want to make sure – and I've inherited this mission from our founders – that when kids watch this show, they can all see themselves."

Fortunately, Truglio's attitude seems to be the prevailing one. Kami has been named a UNICEF global Champion for Children. She has appeared alongside Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, and interviewed by Katie Couric. In 2006, she spoke with Bill Clinton about AIDS and acceptance (the video is available online here). Despite the haters, Kami has become a lasting piece of Sesame Street's history, and although we probably won't be seeing Kami in the U.S. anytime soon, she is an example of Sesame Street's willingness to weather controversy in favor of education. Tuglio explains, "we never talk down to children, and we're not afraid to explore sensitive topics."

Sesame Street's HIV-Positive Muppet Raises Awareness [Global Voices Online]
At 40, Sesame Street Is In A Constant State Of Renewal [USA Today]
Kami [Wikipedia]
Top 10 Sesame Street Controversies [The Week]
President Clinton And Muppet Kami Share HIV/AIDS Message [Unicef Youtube]